The Paradox of the War on Drugs

The international conversation around ending the war on drugs has been going on for decades, yet a clear unravelment has not been found so far. However, what if i told you, that a policy as paradoxical as decriminalizing drug use, is universally praised for it´s effectiveness in response to defeating the drug war?

A medical issue criminalized?

When approaching substance dependence as a medical issue, not a crime, drug decriminalization just might not seem so much of a contradictive solution anymore.

After all, if the objective of drug policies is to decline drug usage and it´s negative effects, why is it constructed in such a way that it traps those who use drugs in a vicious cycle? An inevitable cycle which prevents them from seeking help and essential treatment, due to their fear of entering the penal system and facing charges for their criminalized drug habits.

The rationale behind decriminalization is to treat drug use and dependence as a health and social issue, not a criminal justice or moral issue. Treating drug use as a health and social issue can reduce stigma and increase the likelihood that a person will seek help when they need it.

 A person may also avoid negative social outcomes – such as loss of employment or housing – that can result from a criminal record or engagement with the criminal justice system.

(ADF,”In Portugal, Drug Use Is Treated As A Medical Issue, Not A Crime “2019)

The public health approach arises from an increasingly common view worldwide that addiction is a chronic disease, perhaps comparable to diabetes, and thus requires medical care rather than punishment. After all, we don’t just tell diabetics, “Get over it.

Kristof, “The NY times”, 2017

Is Decriminalization the same as Legalization?

Bud, Cannabis, Close Up, Dope, Drug
source: pixabay

How does enabling people to freely get high in the streets help the problem?There occurs to be a popularized, misconceived vision of drug decriminalization policy as a white flag to substance abuse. Besides, when referring to drug decriminalization, it is often misinterpreted for drug legalization, thus causing a lot of contrary opinions towards drug decriminalization policy.

To set the record straight, i feel inclined to introduce the distinctive nature in between drug decriminalization and drug legalization.


  • When drug use and possession are decriminalized, criminal charges are not applied.
  • May replace criminal penalties with civil penalties. (These could include referral to an education or treatment program, or a fine.)
  • Civil cases do not have to go through the court system. While records may be kept by a tribunal, these are not criminal records and will not affect employment, housing, or travel opportunities.
  • Penalties still apply for use and possession of drugs, but they are no longer criminal charges.
  • Drug possession and personal use are decriminalized, it is still illegal to possess and use drugs. Selling and manufacturing drugs still carry criminal penalties.


  • Drug legalization removes all penalties for possession and personal use of a drug.
  • The only regulations are typically established to manage where and how the legal drug can be produced, sold, and consumed. Criminal or civil penalties may apply if production, sale or consumption occur outside of regulations. (An example of a legalized drug is alcohol.)

(ADF, “Decriminalisation vs legalisation”, 2019)

The good, the bad and the ugly

Drug decriminalization, as controversial of a paradigm it is, might yield optimal solutions to the everlasting war of drugs and it´s destructive effects to the society. However, there are a number of concerns to consider within it´s paradigm.

Pros Of Decriminalization

Drugs Can Be Regulated

The composition of different substances could be more closely controlled. It could also help to ensure that other drugs were not ‘cut’ with even more dangerous substances and regulate the purity of some substances, reducing the risk of overdose.

It Could Facilitate More Medicinal Use Of Drugs

Some drugs, including cannabis, have medical applications. These could potentially be explored more without political ramifications if the drugs were legal to use in other settings.

It Avoids Criminalizing Users

People who are criminalized by their addictions may feel they have less stake in society and may slip more easily into other problematic behaviors. Decriminalization would undermine existing drug gangs and could reduce drug related violence.

Cons Of Decriminalization

More People Could Try Legalized Drugs

It is often argued that more people could experiment with drugs if they were legal who otherwise would not. Drugs could become more accessible for many people.

Andy Cook, Chief Executive of think-tank the CSJ, said: “Decriminalization would open the floodgates to hundreds of thousands of new users, many of whom will be young and vulnerable, and so more prone to damaging physical and mental damage.”

A Black Market Could Remain

If the Government taxed a legalised drugs market heavily, drug gangs could still operate. This could involve producing or smuggling the substances and selling to consumers at lower prices, or selling stronger versions.

Drug Tourism Could Become A Problem

Unless other countries followed suit, the UK or other countries that decriminalised or legalised drugs could attract drug tourists. This could actually be beneficial in purely economic terms but could also being problematic behaviour.

It Sends The Wrong Message

Those in support of prohibition and criminalisation often argue that legalising drugs would send the wrong message, suggesting that it is more socially acceptable to use drugs. It can also give the impression that taking drugs is safe, even though there is plenty of evidence suggesting that this is not the case.

(Gillen, “Ocean Recovery”, 2020)

Treatment over jailtime

Portugal´s ground-braking decriminalization model has globally taken the spotlight among unconventional drug policy models. Portugal sets a prime example of handling substance abuse as a medical issue, not a crime. It´s refreshing attitude towards substance abuse has rewarded the nation with an influential transformation within it´s drug abuse scenery.

To clear the muddy waters of the controversial, ever-lasting debate of whether drug decriminalization can be effective or not, we shall take a glimpse of what is Portugal´s situation today, which speaks for itself.

In 2018, “Transform Drug Policy” declared that now that Portugal’s decriminalization process is over a decade old, there are several long-term benefits that have been recognized, including the following:

  • Substance abuse and addiction rates have been cut in half since decriminalization
  • Addiction treatment and rehabilitation is less expensive than incarceration
  • Individuals with substance abuse problems are much more likely to find recovery in rehab than in jail
  • People completing treatment can become productive members of society much more easily than convicted felons
  • Violence related to drug trafficking is greatly reduced
  • Courts are freed up for other important work
  • The rebellious, countercultural essence of drug use is changed when society sees it as a disease and not a crime
  • Decriminalization also made it easier to fight infectious diseases and treat overdoses

For every person in Portugal who cannot escape addiction, there’s daily methadone, counseling and free treatment. A generation ago, these addicts were put in jail. Now they’re on the street.

Kristof, “The NY times”, 2017

The fluidity in success

Portugal’s approach is no magic wand. Try to envision decriminalization only as a complimentary asset. The success behind drug decriminalization model is fluid; it solely relies on investments in drug treatment and support services. The utopian state Portugal has manifested up to this day, could easily turn to a nightmare without wider health and social reforms.

From where i stand, i argue that there is no single solution in defeating the war on drugs. There remains a diversity of drug policy models that ought to be competent. Yet, when it comes to drug decriminalization itself, it takes the right step towards sinking stigma around substance abuse, by treating substance dependence as a medical issue, not a crime.

Although, as the question remains; where does drug decriminalization stand for in light of defeating the war on drugs? A paradigm or a paradox? The answer to this, lies within a moral or ideological argument for some, while others prefer to go with evidence and statistics. 


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